Is Your New Logo Too Similar? How to Avoid Disputes
Creating a unique and recognizable logo is an essential part of establishing a strong brand identity. However, with so many logos already in existence, it can be challenging to design something 100% original. You may find yourself wondering, “Can my logo be similar to another logo?”
The short answer is yes, your logo can bear some resemblance to existing logos, as long as you avoid infringing on trademarks. However, it’s best to make your logo as distinctive as possible to help your brand stand out in a crowded marketplace.
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the legal and strategic considerations around logo similarity, providing actionable tips to help you develop a logo that is original yet still recognizable.
Understanding Trademark Law
Before exploring how similar your logo can be, it’s important to understand the relevant intellectual property laws. Trademark law protects brand owners from other entities using identical or confusingly similar trademarks. This includes logos.
What are the legal implications?
If your logo is too similar to a registered trademark, the trademark owner can send you a cease and desist letter ordering you to stop using your logo. They could also file a trademark infringement lawsuit against you, seeking financial damages.
Infringing on a trademark can lead to serious legal consequences. It’s not worth the risk of a costly lawsuit that could force you to undergo a complete rebrand.
How is confusion determined?
Courts examine several factors to determine if there is a likelihood of consumer confusion between two marks:
- Similarity of the marks: This comparison focuses on the overall commercial impression created by the logos, including visual, aural, and conceptual similarities. Even if your logo does not copy specific design elements, it could still be considered confusing.
- Proximity of the goods/services: Marks used for closely related products or services are more likely to be confused. For example, two logos for pizza restaurants would cause more confusion than a pizza logo and a logo for a technology company.
- Strength of the senior mark: Well-known brand marks are given greater protection. You will have more flexibility when using common words/images in less famous trademarks.
- Evidence of actual confusion: Courts look for real-world examples of customers mixing up the brands. This could include people mistakenly patronizing your business thinking it’s the other brand.
- Sophistication of consumers: Confusion is less likely between marks aimed at expert purchasers who exercise care during transactions. Mass-market consumer goods get more protection.
- Your intent: Good faith is assumed. However, intentionally copying could suggest you are trying to unfairly capitalize on brand recognition.
There is no bright line rule for what degree of similarity is permissible. Each case depends on context and the factors above. When in doubt, consult an intellectual property attorney.
What are the penalties for infringement?
If a court determines you infringed a trademark, you could face the following penalties:
- Injunction: You will be legally required to stop using your infringing logo and any associated marketing materials. This forces you to undergo a complete rebranding.
- Monetary damages: You must pay for harm caused to the brand, including lost profits and damage control expenses. Statutory damages of up to $200,000 per infringement can be assessed if harm is difficult to calculate.
- Attorney fees: You’ll likely have to pay all the legal fees incurred by the trademark owner, which can total hundreds of thousands of dollars even for straightforward cases.
- Trademark cancellation: Your own trademark registration for the infringing logo will be cancelled by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
How can I check for infringement?
Before finalizing your logo, it’s critical to thoroughly search for any similar registered trademarks. Here are some tips:
- Search the USPTO’s free TESS database which contains all federal trademark registrations. Make sure to search for design marks.
- Search state trademark registries for common law rights not federally registered. TM Search is a useful centralized state trademark search engine.
- Run Google image searches to catch unregistered logos and find inspiration. Search for your industry keywords plus “logo”.
- Consult an intellectual property attorney to review your logo and provide a legal opinion on infringement risk. This can help protect you.
Even if you confirm your logo does not exactly match any marks, it’s still possible to get sued if a brand owner thinks it’s too similar. Using the strategies below can help minimize this risk.
Strategies for Creating a Distinct Yet Recognizable Logo
Crafting an original logo that doesn’t cross legal lines requires strategically balancing two competing goals:
Distinctiveness: Your logo must be distinctive enough from existing marks to avoid confusion. This means prominently featuring elements not used in other logos.
Memorability: At the same time, your logo should be recognizable and memorable so prospects associate it with your brand. Completely unique designs often fail on memorability.
There are no hard and fast rules for achieving this balance, but the following tips can point you in the right direction:
Focus on your name
Incorporating your company or product name into the logo is the easiest way to boost distinctiveness. Consider making the name the prominent visual feature, sized larger than additional design elements.
For example, the Nike “swoosh” checkmark alone would be easily confused with other simple checkmark logos. But pairing it with the distinct NIKE wordmark reduces that risk.
Use commonly shared elements strategically
Certain basic shapes, symbols and motifs frequently appear across many logos, especially within industries. For example, tech logos often incorporate simple geometric shapes.
Rather than completely avoiding common logo elements, you can put a unique spin on them to make them your own. Some ways to differentiate shared components include:
- Stylize it: Use a distinct font, color palette, effects, orientation etc.
- Pair it thoughtfully: Combine it with other elements in an unexpected way.
- Modify it: Tweak the element so it’s not exactly the same as what others use.
Conduct a competitive audit
Thoroughly analyze logos of competitors and companies in related fields. Identify common themes and elements used in those logos.
Then intentionally design your logo to prominently feature components NOT found in other relevant logos. This helps maximize distinctiveness where it matters most.
Hire a professional designer
Experienced logo designers deeply understand how to strike the right balance between familiarity and uniqueness. They are familiar with trademarks in your field and can provide strategic guidance as they develop design concepts.
A custom logo designed specifically for your brand is much more likely to be distinctive compared to purchasing a generic, ready-made logo. The cost is well worth it.
Get feedback on confusion
Before finalizing your logo, show it to a diverse set of people including colleagues, prospective customers and professional designers. Ask if they find it confusingly similar to any other logos they know, and adjust based on feedback.
Strategic Ways to Modify Common Logo Elements
Certain logo elements like stars, crowns, tags, hearts and more appear widely across various industry logos. You can strategically modify how you incorporate these commonly used components to keep your logo distinctive.
Stars are associated with ratings, excellence and achievement. To make your star unique, try:
- Using an unusual number of points, like a square/diamond “star” or starburst design
- Skewing and tilting the star in an asymmetric way
- Outlining it in an irregular, hand-drawn style
- Combining it with a moon or other celestial elements
- Making it noticeably large or small in scale
Crowns represent leadership, authority and preeminence. Customize yours through:
- An irregular shape, like a triangular or hexagonal crown
- Spikes, points or jewels of different sizes
- Bending it into an arched shape
- Detaching the center jewel from the base
- An engraved or etched texture
Tags suggest labels, specials and discounts. For originality, you could:
- Use a tag shape other than a rectangle, like a circle or cloud
- Add custom text, symbols or creative touches to the tag face
- Thread it on a string, ribbon or chain
- Make it handwritten, stitched or visually textured
- Pair it with other objects like price bubbles or safety pins
Hearts symbolize love, compassion and emotion. Some distinctive approaches include:
- Anatomically correct heart versus cartoon heart shape
- Irregular, hand-drawn heart outline
- Distorting into an abstract liquid shape
- Cracked or fractured heart
- Heart visualizations like an ECG reading or heart monitor
- Heart made of alternative materials like wood, glass or barbed wire
Checkmarks indicate approval, success and verification. You can differentiate yours through:
- Thick, brush stroke style
- Circular vs standard checkmark shape
- Filling it with a unique pattern or texture
- Using as asymmetrical bending or bouncing motion
- Rotating and stylizing into an abstract symbol
- Incorporating it into letters like a font
With thoughtful customization, you can incorporate common logo symbols in an original way that supports your brand identity. The context matters more than the specific component.
Other Logo Originality Tips
Beyond modifying shared visual elements, there are additional strategies for developing a distinctive and ownable logo mark:
Use an illustration or mascot
An original illustrated character, mascot or scene automatically makes your logo stand out, adds personality and helps consumers remember your brand.
Focus on abstract geometric shapes
Geometric shapes feel familiar, but combining and arranging them in new ways creates an abstract logo no one has seen before.
Make it animated or interactive
A logo that changes and responds to user actions will be more unique in the sea of static logos. This works for digital media.
Feature your product
Cleverly showcasing your actual product or its components is an easy way to tie your logo to your company in consumers’ minds.
Leverage culturally-specific symbols
Incorporating imagery tied to your regional, ethnic or national culture can ensure your logo feels authentic and distinctive.
Add your founding date
Including your company’s year of origin adds a unique storytelling element while making it trickier for others to copy.
Develop a complete branding system
A cohesive set of logo variations, colors, fonts and graphic elements will make your overall brand recognizable even if competitors copy a single logo.
With an understanding of trademark law plus these helpful strategies, you can create a logo that feels familiar yet definitively stands on its own. A professional designer can help navigate this balance. The goal is recognizing that no logo exists in a vacuum. The proper context and thoughtful brand building are just as important.
Recognizing Shared Logo Colors and Families
In addition to shared shapes and symbols, you should educate yourself on commonly used logo color schemes to guide your own color choices.
Common Color Palettes
Many logos pull colors from the same basic palettes. Be aware of overused combinations like:
- Red and yellow (McDonalds, YouTube)
- Blue and white (Facebook, Twitter, Ford)
- Red and white (Coke, YouTube)
- Blue and gold/yellow (Ikea, Uber)
- Black and red (Netflix, Youtube)
You can use classic color pairs but modify the exact shades and textures. For example, instead of bright yellow, use metallic gold.
Pay attention to colors frequently used by direct competitors and industry leaders. Intentionally choosing different colors can help differentiate your brand.
For example, green logos are very common in health, nature and environmental companies. A newcomer in this space could stand out with a pink, orange or purple logo.
Owned Brand Colors
Some brands like Tiffany Blue, UPS Brown and Cadillac Pink have “owned” very specific color shades as part of their trademark. Legally you need to avoid any confusingly similar colors.
For example, Pantone 1375 C is iconic Tiffany Blue. Another jewelry brand should steer clear of light robin’s egg blue. But a darker navy blue would be sufficiently distinct.
Shared Color Meaning
Colors carry symbolism that consumers recognize. Using the expected color reinforces the message but may not stand out.
Purple = Royalty
Green = Natural
Blue = Professional
Red = Hot/Spicy
Pink = Feminine
Subverting expectations can win attention while communicating creativity. For example, an accounting firm could use a vibrant orange and green logo.
By tracking competitors and industry trends, you can make educated color choices that help differentiate your brand identity.
Evaluating Font and Typography Similarity
Along with the symbol/icon component of a logo, the stylization of your company name itself significantly impacts distinctiveness.
Hundreds of thousands of fonts exist, but most logos pull from the same basic font categories like:
- Serif: Traditional and elegant (Times New Roman)
- Sans-serif: Clean, simple, modern (Helvetica)
- Script: Elegant, upscale (Brush Script)
- Display: Eye-catching, decorative (Impact)
Consider a less frequently used font family like handwritten, retro, art deco, slab serif etc. Or combine multiple types for contrast.
Many brands commission completely custom lettering for their logo design. This guarantees a one-of-a-kind look, at an added cost.
Modifying and editing existing fonts can be a budget-friendly alternative to make a type style feel proprietary.
Do not closely imitate the typography of well-known competitor logos. For example, Disney’s bubbly font or Coca-Cola’s flowing script.
However, taking loose inspiration from category leaders can establish you as part of the same tribe. Just ensure your execution looks noticeably different.
Conveying Brand Attributes
Font styling should align with your brand personality and values. For example:
- Fun: Bubble letters, funky shapes
- Luxurious: Thin serifs, gold color
- Strong: Bold, angular type
While you should avoid directly copying another logo’s font, it’s ok to echo the same generalized style and vibe. This strengthens brand positioning.
To protect your logo, be consistent about registering any custom fonts and type treatments so they cannot be reused without permission. Never use the exact name font as another logo.
With an awareness of the font similarities in your field, you can craft logo typography that feels familiar while maintaining necessary distinction.
Best Practices for Modifying Existing Logos
As a business grows and evolves, it’s natural to consider updating your logo. However, significant changes also come with risks of reduced brand recognition. Here are smart strategies for modifying a logo without confusing customers:
Make subtle iterative changes over time
Radically transforming your logo overnight can shock customers. Take a gradual approach of incrementally introducing minor adjustments over a series of years.
Modernize minor elements, not the core
Keep the most central, recognizable components consistent. Refresh dated secondary elements like fonts, colors, and simpler graphic shapes.
Maintain visual connections
When refreshing your logo, retain some key visual cues and hooks between old and new so the lineage remains clear. This provides continuity.
Simplify, don’t complicate
Resist the urge to make your logo more detailed and complex. Brands benefit from iconic, cleanly recognizable logos that are easy to process visually.
Test extensively beforehand
Invest in customer research including surveys and focus groups to gauge reactions to logo change concepts. Be prepared to abandon changes that test poorly.
When introducing a new logo, clearly communicate the reasons for the change and connections to the existing logo. Don’t leave customers confused.
Roll out logo changes gradually across touchpoints. Run both old and new logo variations side-by-side for a period during the transition.
Legally register updates
File new trademark registrations to protect your intellectual property in updated logos and prevent infringement.
With careful strategy and restraint, you can freshen up a logo without undermining brand equity. However, avoid change purely for change’s sake. Your logo should remain identifiable.
How Closely Can My Logo Resemble an Expired Trademark?
If you discover a great logo concept but find a similar trademark has expired, is it safe to move forward with that idea? Here are important considerations when dealing with expired marks.
Confirm the expiration is legitimate
Double check on the USPTO website that the trademark has in fact expired due to failure to renew and has not been reinstated. Only dead and abandoned marks are up for grabs.
Understand lingering common law rights
After federal registration lapses, the owner may still retain common law rights if they continue actively using the mark. These rights evaporate over time but can persist for years.
Evaluate level of residual brand recognition
If consumers still strongly associate the mark with the original brand, avoid too close of similarity even after expiration. Honor residual equity and prevent confusion.
Make substantive distinctive changes
Do not resurrect an identical or nearly identical version of the expired logo. Incorporate conspicuous styling differences and new substantive elements beyond color swaps.
Search for prior unauthorized use
Research whether other third parties already adopted similar logos during the period the mark went unused, weakening protections.
Seek legal guidance
Consult an attorney about your specific situation before investing in a new logo that resembles a recently expired trademark. Let the lawyer assess risks.
While an opening may exist to borrow from an abandoned logo, tread very carefully. Smart, strategic modifications paired with proper legal advice can help avoid conflicts.
Signs Your Logo May Be Too Similar to Existing Marks
If you’re unsure about your logo’s similarity to others, watch for these red flags that signal higher infringement risks:
It clearly evokes another mark
If your logo immediately brings to mind an existing brand, it likely crosses the line. You want people thinking of your company first.
It only tweaks minor styling details
Surface-level changes like colors, fonts and small flourishes typically don’t make a logo distinctive enough. More substantive differences are required.
People point out the similarity
If colleagues, designers, or customers unprompted notice your logo’s resemblance to another, pay attention. Their organic confusion speaks volumes.
It focuses on commonly trademarked elements
Reusing commonly trademarked shapes, symbols or icons substantially boosts risk. Wholly original components are ideal.
It closely mimics a competitor
Extra caution is required when your logo evokes brands in your industry. This is where confusion matters most.
It’s a generic stock template
Unmodified stock logos and templates are magnets for legal disputes since they lack originality. Never use stock logos as-is.
No professional designer was involved
Logos created without professional help are less likely to account for existing trademarks and strategically balance distinction with familiarity. Hire an expert.
It hasn’t been thoroughly vetted
Prior professional legal review and consumer confusion testing minimizes the odds you overlooked problematic similarities. Do your diligence.
Listen to your intuition. If something seems questionable or you have doubts, it’s best to err on the side of more originality. With a strategic designer guiding you through trademark considerations, you can develop a logo that feels familiar yet definitively stands on its own.
When Can You Use Stock Logo Templates and Elements?
Purchasing ready-made stock logos or template elements seems like an easy shortcut, but it carries significant risks of ending up with a generic, unoriginal design. However, stock assets can be used strategically in limited circumstances:
For internal tools or documents
Basic stock logos or templates are likely fine for internal tools, documents and projects not visible to external customers. There’s lower risk of confusion.
As inspiration only
It’s OK to browse stock logo libraries for general inspiration on shapes, fonts, colors and composition trends. But the final logo design should be 100% custom.
Once significantly modified
A stock logo or template element can potentially serve as the starting point if it undergoes substantial modification revealing no resemblance to the original.
Outside your industry
A stock logo clearly designed for a different industry unlikely to use that logo is safer to adapt. But modifying it to your industry increases risk.
With a designer’s guidance
Work with an experienced designer to strategically incorporate and customize any stock components in a transformative way that results in a novel finished logo.
As supporting brand imagery
Basic stock shapes or icons may be acceptable for peripheral uses like social profile images or website backgrounds, not as the core logo.
While adapting stock logos can save money, it’s playing with fire legally. At minimum, work with a designer to transform stock into unique branding. An original custom logo is the safest approach.
Tips for Proving Your Logo Was Independently Created
If your logo becomes subject to a trademark infringement allegation or lawsuit, proving you independently conceived your design — without copying or intentional imitation — is an important defense strategy. Here’s how to position yourself to show independent creation:
Secure dated preliminary sketches and drafts
Keep early rough drawings, concepts and revisions showing the idea originated with you, before the plaintiff’s registration.
Retain project files with creation metadata
Back up working files from your logo design software showing the timestamp you developed the logo, for technical evidence.
Document your creative process
Keep notes, briefs and records demonstrating the strategic approach underlying your logo’s development and how you crafted it from initial concept to finalization.
Copyright your logo artwork
Federally registering your logo artwork with the U.S. Copyright Office provides you with legal documentation of ownership.
Search for prior third-party use
Find any potential examples of businesses already independently using similar logos or elements prior to the plaintiff’s rights to demonstrate lack of ownership.
Show your own trademark registration
If you federally registered your logo with the USPTO before the plaintiff, this helps rebut claims that you copied them by showing your bona fide rights.
Highlight conceptual differences
Point out how your logo communicates different ideas, meanings and brand associations from the plaintiff’s to undermine theories that you intentionally imitated their distinctive messaging.
Documenting every step of your logo design process from the outset can save you from a nightmare infringement lawsuit. Having concrete evidence that you conceived your logo independently and in good faith is your best defense.
Designing an original logo is a challenging balance, but critically important for your brand identity and staying out of legal disputes. While some reasonable similarity is allowed and familiarity has benefits, prioritizing distinctiveness minimizes risk.
Leverage professional guidance, rigorously investigate potential conflicts, and thoroughly document your own independent, clean-slate creation process. With strategic thinking and proper care, you can develop a logo that feels fresh yet familiar.
Most importantly, remember that a logo alone will not make or break your brand. Consistent, thoughtful execution of a complete branding system counts more than any single visual component. Focus on holistically conveying your unique brand identity, and the logo will serve as an extension of that – not the definitive factor.